If you’re interested in trademarks but not sure if it’s worth the investment, I’m here to explain the benefits, including explaining how long do trademarks last.
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1. How long do trademarks last?
How long do trademarks last is an important question. In the United States, a trademark can last forever (if you use it forever). That is great news for someone who wants to invest in trademark registration.
A one-time initial investment to register your trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office could give you exclusive rights to your company’s name, logo, slogan, and/or design. No one else can have that exact or similar mark, in any similar category, if you have a registered trademark.
However, a court will not enforce trademark rights if you stop using your trademark. In other words, you cannot squat on a trademark.
You have to actually use the trademark and continue using the trademark if you want to continue to own the trademark.
In the U.S., you retain ownership of a trademark as long as you continue to use the trademark and file the necessary maintenance documents with the United States Patent and Trademark Office every few years.
Foregoing the maintenance documents or foregoing continuous use could allow someone else to take your trademark from you.
Trademarks are the only intellectual property that can last forever. Copyrights and patents expire after a certain period, but trademarks can be owned by one person/company for generations.
Always use your trademark and file the maintenance documents to keep your trademark. The first maintenance documents are due between the fifth and sixth years following registration.
Please see below for more information on trademarks and the benefits of registering your trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
2. What is a trademark?
A trademark is a brand identifier. This can be a brand name, logo, slogan, or design. For example, Play Doh is a trademarked name for this famous toy company. Play Doh also has a registered trademark for their unique smell.
The term trademark is used to describe both a trade mark (for a product) and a service mark (for a service).
It is important to remember that a trademark protects an aspect of a brand. This is something that you hold out to the public so that a customer knows that you are the source of the good or service.
A design on a t-shirt is not automatically a trademark if you only use it on that one t-shirt for an ornamental/decorative purpose. You need to use a mark *for your brand* if you want it to be considered a trademark.
The USPTO also notes the following misconceptions about trademarks:
A common misconception is that having a trademark means you legally own a particular word or phrase and can prevent others from using it. However, you don’t have rights to the word or phrase in general, only to how that word or phrase is used with your specific goods or services.
For example, let's say you use a logo as a trademark for your small woodworking business to identify and distinguish your goods or services from others in the woodworking field. This doesn't mean you can stop others from using a similar logo for non-woodworking related goods or services.
Another common misconception is believing that choosing a trademark that merely describes your goods or services is effective. Creative and unique trademarks are more effective and easier to protect.
A trademark can be owned by a person or by a company. If the trademark is related to a company, I usually recommend that the trademark owner be listed as the company. This helps ensure that all company dealings are in the company’s name and not someone’s personal name to limit personal liability. In other words, you don’t want your company to get sued and have access to your personal bank accounts and home.
You can get automatic trademark rights (also known as common law rights) as soon as you start using a certain name, logo, slogan, and/or design as your brand.
However, you can get additional rights and benefits if you register your trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. I will discuss the benefits of registering your trademark with the USPTO below.
3. What are the types of trademarks?
There are different types of trademarks. The strongest trademark is “fanciful.” A fanciful trademark is a completely made up word. Exxon is a fanciful trademark.
Another type of trademark is an “arbitrary” trademark. An arbitrary trademark is a real word but it is used in a content that it is not normally used in. For example, “Apple” for computers is an arbitrary trademark. Apple is a real word but it describes a fruit. It was not used for computers prior to Steve Jobs.
A “descriptive” trademark is a word that actually describes the service or product. For example, if I named my company Melissa’s Law Firm, that would be a descriptive trademark.
The USPTO gives the strongest trademark protection to fanciful trademarks. The rationale is that a company is taking extreme measures to market and promote its brand. Therefore the USPTO wants to afford it with the strongest protection against infringers.
Arbitrary marks receive the second highest level of protection from the USPTO.
Lastly, descriptive marks receive the least protection. In most cases, the USPTO would not allow a descriptive mark to be placed on the Primary trademark register. A descriptive mark may be registered on the Supplemental Register. After certain requirements are met, an owner of a trademark placed on the Supplemental Register can ask that it be placed on the Primary Register.
You can consider these varying levels of trademark protection when selecting a name or design for your company. The more unique the trademark, the more protections you will have against others copying your company’s name, logo, or slogan.
4. What does a trademark protect? What are the benefits?
Registering your trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office comes with important benefits that you don’t want to miss out on.
One of the biggest benefits of having a registered trademark is that you have exclusive rights to use the trademark nationally. That means that someone else cannot have the same trademark as you anywhere in the country. Another person also cannot have a similar mark to your trademark. Stopping companies with similar names can be important to stopping unfair competitors.
You may not need to file a trademark application at the state level if you have a registered trademark at the federal level.
If someone else have the same or similar mark to you, in a similar category, you can stop them by filing an infringement lawsuit.
The USPTO lists these benefits on their website:
Trademark is listed in our database of registered and pending trademarks. This provides public notice to anyone searching for similar trademarks. They will see your trademark, the goods and services on your registration, the date you applied for trademark registration, and the date your trademark registered.
Legal presumption that you own the trademark and have the right to use it. So, in federal court, your registration certificate proves ownership, eliminating the need for copious amounts of evidence.
Can use your registration as a basis for filing for trademark protection in foreign countries.
Right to bring a lawsuit concerning the trademark in federal court.
May use the federal trademark registration symbol, ®, with your trademark to show that you are registered with us. This may help deter others from using your trademark or one too similar to yours.
Record your registration with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). They can stop the importation of goods with an infringing trademark.
The trademark process is also beneficial. The process is two steps. Step 1 is the trademark clearance search. The trademark search is a due diligence matter to make sure that the trademark that you want to use is not the same or too similar to someone else’s. Or else you could get sued.
Step 2 is the trademark application and registration process. Owning a registered trademark can help you stop others from copying your brand.
Both steps are important to a company. Both steps can help you save money and reduce legal risks.
Spending less than $2,000 once, for a lifetime trademark, could help avoid an infringement suit from someone else. If you skip the trademark clearance search process and pick a name that infringes on another trademark, the other trademark owner can sue you. You could have to pay about $10,000 in attorney fees, $500 in picking a new domain name, $2,000 in designing a new website, $1,500 in new marketing materials, $4,000 in new labels for packages, and thousands more in damages to the other trademark owner. You could also lose out on the $350 USPTO application fee if you filed a trademark application for a trademark that was owned by someone else.
You never know how fast your company can grow. As a business owner, set your business up for success in the beginning with registration of a trademark.
Don’t be like Club House. This was a a billion dollar business that did not do a trademark clearance search. This company was not the owner of a federal trademark registration, despite the widely-known two step trademark application process described above. They were sued for trademark infringement and the value of their company plummeted.
Remember, a trademark can last forever! Take the necessary steps in the beginning to protect your brand's intellectual property matters for generations to come.
This article was primarily about how long do trademarks last, and other important information on trademarks.
If you are a business owner interested in protecting your business name (and stopping copycats), I'd be happy to help. You can schedule a call on my website or call (754) 800-4481.
Melissa Ramnauth, Esq. has been a licensed attorney for 10 years with extensive experience with trademark legal requirements, federal registration, federal protection, renewal dates, renewal documents, trademark renewal deadlines, office actions, and more.
Legal Disclaimer: The information in this post is for educational purposes only related to U.S. trademark law. Legal advice is only given pursuant to a legal retainer.